Joho the BlogCorrecting errors - Joho the Blog

Correcting errors

I write this as someone who is personally thin-skinned about being corrected. I don’t mind being wrong about big things, like, say The Meaning of It All, but I seem to have some bad ego mojo wrapped up in having it betrayed that I generally don’t know what I’m talking about.

Nevertheless, I’ve been admiring Scott Rosenberg’s series of posts about trying to get the Wall Street Journal to correct a misspelling of an author’s name. Start here, then read this, then this, as Scott opens the issue up, from a small error to some much larger thoughts.

I gave a talk a couple of days ago in which I put onto the same slide Steven Levy and Jay Rosen. Steven in Wired wonders why publishers don’t automatically update ebooks with corrections. Jay has been arguing that the Sunday morning news shows have an ethical obligation to fact-check their guests afterwards. In both cases, the media are acting as if publishing something locks it the way printing it on paper does.

It’s actually quite amazing that we don’t yet have normal, expected ways for online journalistic media to correct errors, the way the word “sic” denotes that an error was in the original text being quoted, or the way many bloggers put errors into strikethrough font once they’ve been discovered. What is the standard way that online news media express and correct errors? Why isn’t there an answer to that question 15+ years into the history of the Web?

10 Responses to “Correcting errors”

  1. There are two obvious aspects at play:
    a) The integrity of the authors work.
    b) The veracity of the authors words.

    If there is a factual error that is brought to the author’s attention they have the dilemma of preserving the work’s integrity vs improving its veracity (not perpetuating a falsehood that has been brought to their attention).

    There aren’t many blogs that solve this problem at all well. In fact the only one I’ve come across is at QuestionCopyright.org where readers can view all revisions of an article. This enables readers to see the original ‘unbowdlerised’ version of the author’s published speech (the true record), and successive revisions (edited/emended).

  2. Crosbie. If I link to the first version of a post at QuestionCopryight and it turns out to contain an error that affects what I say about it, do readers of my post get linked to the version with the mistake or to the latest version?

  3. That is a good question David.

    I don’t know if it’s possible at QC, but ideally a hyperlink should refer to a date specific version, but a follower is shown the latest version with some indication if anything significant has changed (with options to highlight changes between linked and latest – even insignificant changes – cf GPL v3).

    Funnily enough I found an old article on QC that I really liked, but it had some formatting problems. Then when I notified the author of those problems, that version was removed entirely (it was a defunct page that the author hadn’t got round to removing) and I had to refer to a later version. Trouble was, I had effectively quoted from and linked to that defunct page in the site’s ancient, pre-revisioned era – and my article and quote was already published. So what to do? What I had quoted no longer existed, it had been rephrased in all later revisions, and yet it was what I’d quoted that I preferred.

    How many bloggers are jumping up and down demanding features to preserve the revision history of their articles (and those linked to)?

    Veracity is important, but then so is integrity. They both concern truth.

    Integrity & historical veracity “This is exactly what I said” vs Veracity “This is a corrected version of what I said”

    You might be the author of your words, but that doesn’t mean you get to revise history to your liking. Veracity isn’t a warrant to revise what you have said, but to revise what you will say. A website is a continuous publication – not a printed book (the metaphor we pretend it is). So a website has to decide whether it only presents the original version, the latest revision, or all revisions. Or hope no-one notices because it has so few revisions…

  4. Great post David. We believe – like Crosbie – this issue comes down to veracity and credibility.

    We are currently working on a crowd-sourced solution to measure the veracity of information online at http://www.howtru.com. Our solution is unique because it is not a vote up or down, not even a like or dislike, but a measure indicating the accuracy of information. A solution where people verify what they know to be true, and refute what is suspect or false.

    HowTru will allow individuals to evaluate an article’s facts which influence the article’s accuracy score. Each user participating on HowTru will have a credibility score that is determined by other users’ evaluation of your evaluations. Your credibility in the system impacts the amount of influence you have. The higher your credibility score, the more you will be able to impact an article’s accuracy score. It is a simple solution, and one that enables individuals to share their wisdom to determine what information is true.

    We plan to launch the alpha version of our site by the end of the summer and appreciate any comments folks have on the solution.

  5. There’s a significant difference between veracity and credibility. The author is responsible for veracity since the public to which they are communicating has a natural right to truth (against impairment). However, whilst authors may like to be credible it’s a matter for their readers as much as the author. It’s no good being right about the Earth orbiting the Sun if your readers share a consensus opinion to the contrary and find your arguments incredible.

    Thus the crowd can be asked to rate an author’s credibility, plausibility and how well what they say aligns with popular consensus, but it would be dangerous to insinuate this had too much of a bearing on the veracity of the author’s words. Compare ‘trial by media/mob’ vs ‘trial by jury’.

    The scientific community regularly faces the problem of distinguishing between ‘plausibility through compatibility with scientific dogma’ and ‘a falsifiable theory that better explains and fits observation’. Stomach ulcers caused by Helicobater pylori? Preposterous!

    We already have people obtaining too much power through popularity, so the last thing we need is a way of systematising demagoguery. Instead we need better systems for discerning the truth (as opposed to consensus – which can all too easily take its place).

  6. @Crosbie; You’re right, veracity and credibility are different, but they are also related. When you make this statement:
    “Thus the crowd can be asked to rate an author’s credibility, plausibility and how well what they say aligns with popular consensus, but it would be dangerous to insinuate this had too much of a bearing on the veracity of the author’s words.”
    it seems as if you’re saying that veracity = absolute truth, which I’m sure you can agree is, philosophically speaking, unknowable. Therein lies the wrinkle in how anyone would measure veracity, systematically. Consider the various definitions of truth (relative, consensual, pragmatic, constructive and absolute) and as an exercise, value these varying definitions on a scale of perceived values.

    On the high end, we have absolute truth, that which is true for everyone, regardless of whether they wish to accept it or not (gravity exists). On the low end we can place relative truths, that which is true to an individual and only to that individual (God answered my prayer). Using these two simple assumptions, we then must conclude that the other definitions of truth exist somewhere in the middle of these two in value. So how do we get from relative to absolute? Via consensual truths. Simply stated, that which is true to you and to me has a greater “likelihood” of aligning with an absolute truth than something that is only true to you OR me. This doesn’t mean that we both can’t be wrong and be on the wrong side of the Copernican revolution, it’s merely an indicator of our potential for accuracy to an observing third party. This only becomes “dangerous” as you cautioned, when no record is kept as to how credibility has been earned, as in a historical thread of statements upon which credibility is based.

    Discovering truth is a continual and evolving process where verification (accountable consensus) is arguably the most valuable tool and is not to be confused with popularity (unaccountable consensus). Credibility can be awarded AND stripped through verification as long as accountability exists in the process.

  7. Agree with Toma – veracity and credibility are different but they are also related.

    Also agree the “We already have people obtaining too much power through popularity, so the last thing we need is a way of systematising demagoguery.”

    Popularity is not what we are looking for…what we we are looking for is the truth. We want folks to work together to find the truth.

    The case you bring up regarding Helicobater pylori seems like a similar situation to everyone believing the world is flat. In this situation, those who go with dogma would lose credibility in the long run because their evaluations and articles would eventually be found to be false and there is a record of what they have stated holding them accountable. People that show through facts, studies, etc that the world is round would eventually gain credibility in the system.

  8. Toma, no, veracity is not ‘absolute truth’. As you point out, it is self-evident that truth is unobtainable. Therefore the ‘right to truth’ is not a right to be handed the ‘absolute truth’ on a platter, but to the truth as far as one is able to apprehend it – WITHOUT WILFUL OR NEGLIGENT IMPAIRMENT. While we may not know the truth we can certainly obtain evidence of falsehood (witting or not). Veracity therefore is a measure of how few avoidable inaccuracies and falsehoods an author permits into their writing – as opposed to an unmeasureable coincidence of their writing with the unknowable ‘absolute truth’.

    Veracity is nothing to do with concensus. It is one thing to reiterate the concensus, but another to pursue the truth that may be at odds with it.

    As to credibility, a lot of people find the Pope credible. A few people even found David Koresh of Branch Davidian credible. No doubt quite a few find Osama Bin Laden credible – or even the CIA. A credibility metric may be of prurient curiosity, but I don’t think it leads toward the truth. I remain worried by the prospect.

    Ameha Molla, I don’t think we can afford to operate at timescales that penalise the ‘credible, but ultimately false’. We operate in the timescale of a human lifetime and so need to discount plausibility or credibility in favour of evidence. The likes of Copernicus aren’t particularly interested to gain credibility a century or more after their death – they are primarily interested in determining the truth in their own lifetime.

    There are a lot of credulous people in this world. I see little value in a credibility metric to measure their credulity with respect to any given public speaker.

    A reputation metric however, well, maybe that’s a little more interesting.

    There are no shortcuts to truth – crowdsourcing is all very well, but it’s not an oracle (cf Prediction markets).

  9. Crosbie, love your apparent passion in this area and it seems that we might share a mutual interest (thwarting misinformation). Philosophically (or technically) you are correct, veracity has nothing to do with consensus. Consensus and truth are very often at odds and throughout history this dichotomy has been at the root of both tremendous human suffering and delays in the advancement of human knowledge. That said, consensus is also the best tool we have as we build axiomatic sets that help us to understand the world around us (independent verifications performed within the scientific method). It’s not that consensus provides any sense of absolution, but with so many competing theories and sources of information, understanding the veracity of claims made (in any category or context) is critical.

    Let’s take a pseudo real world example: Doctor A (PhD) says that giving your child vaccine X will increase the risk your child develops autism. Doctor B (PhD from same University) says that not giving your child vaccine X will not protect your child from known viruses. As the mother of this child and no knowledge of medicine, who do I listen to?

    This is where consensus can be constructive. Weighted verifications of each Doctor’s claims can give us an understanding of what our (human) collective understanding of this situation suggests is more likely to be true. By weighting verifications, we can have the consensus of the minority outweigh the consensus of the majority if we include the contextual credibility of each verification. In this respect, consensus does not necessarily equal a majority by volume.

    Credibility in this case is defined as an aggregation of the verifiable veracity of all previous transactions. Analogous to the financial credit score that we are all held accountable to but never asked for. If I have a high credit score, does that mean that there’s no risk in loaning me $1M? There’s always risk, and that’s the point…but an aggregation of my previous transactions can give an indication as to the likelihood I will pay the money back; if my statements and claims historically prove high in veracity then my statements tomorrow can at the very least be deemed to be from a credible source.

    It basically comes down to how we quantify, at least mathematically, veracity. If we don’t take it as a black and white term (i.e., a claim has veracity or it does not, no other possible values) then we lose the versatility we see in its definition: conformity with truth; truthfulness; accuracy All of these definitions provide for a sliding scale, relative valuing. Therein lies the value in crowd-sourcing it’s measurement; not perfect, but it’s a lot better than having say a Glenn Beck on a platform of popularity declaring that Obama is a racist and having millions believe that it is true.

    Reputation is the third element in all of this, in my opinion, and I agree is very interesting. I consider reputation to be a function of both veracity AND credibility but believe that it has to be on one’s own terms. Do I post this comment to Joho anonymously (reputation gain zero), by a handle like ‘tbedolla’ where I can gain reputation albeit by proxy or by Toma Bedolla where I put my reputation on the line with my statements made publicly. If you allow reputation to be affected by only public statements, then we create a gap between reputation and credibility which is basically the world we live in now. Such gaps make it possible for a Koresh, Beck or any other talking head to swap reputations earned on popularity for being perceived as credible.

    There are indeed no shortcuts to truth, but there are plenty of ways to get off the path to it. Crowd-sourcing is certainly no “oracle”, but in the absence of an all knowing resource, I’d rather pool as much expertise together as I can when understanding issues of medicine, politics and finance. Unfortunately the world isn’t as clear and concise as the realms of science and technology often portray until the next paradigm shift!

    Crosbie, please e-mail me at [email protected]; I’d love to continue the conversation and discuss our work at Veracious Entropy if you have the time.

    Be well and stay credible,

    -Toma

  10. your blog has really help


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